Shake up party from inside out
Brent Johner, For The Calgary Herald
Published: Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Alberta’s new premier may be know affectionately as Steady Eddie in small town coffee shops, but his cabinet selections — chosen more for their loyalty than for their brilliance — are seen by many here in Calgary as the Special Eds.
And despite this city’s willingness to give the new guy a chance, many find it hard to believe that a white, middle-aged, male and mostly rural group of conservative cabinet ministers will ever feel comfortable with urban Alberta’s growth-and-change agenda.
So what’s to be done?
What are the alternatives should Steady Eddie and the Special Eds turn out to be Harry Strom and the Socreds reincarnated?
At least one Calgary columnist is predicting the imminent collapse of the Alberta PCs and is calling on Ted Morton and Jim Dinning to flee with their supporters to the Alberta Alliance Party — Alberta’s newest protest party.
He’s not alone. Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail is also wondering aloud if it isn’t time for a new political alignment in Alberta.
Like many pundits, Simpson disdains the current opposition and looks to the formation of a new party in the event that Steady Eddie proves “too steady,” boring and old-fashioned for Albertans focused on a growth-and-change agenda.
“The name ‘Liberal’ is just too toxic in Alberta,” writes Simpson. “The desire for political change in Alberta runs not through an established political alternative but some new political force.”
He’s wrong, of course. But he can be forgiven for being so. Many people, professional historians included, have looked at Alberta’s history and have come to exactly the same utterly incorrect conclusion.
The brilliant success of two protest parties — the United Farmers of Alberta (1921-1935) and the Social Credit Party (1935-1971) — blinds people to the fact that more than 20 other “new” parties have failed to gain any traction whatsoever in Alberta.
In fact, only a tiny fraction of Alberta’s “new” parties have been able to elect any members to the provincial assembly and with the exception of the two just mentioned, none were able to garner enough support to form a government.
It is nearly three generations now since a new political party in Alberta has gained sufficient momentum to seize the reins of government.
Witness the spectacular lack of success now enjoyed by new parties such as the Alberta Alliance and the Alberta Greens.
A single MLA between them doesn’t give much credence to the arguments put forth by new party proponents.
Even the federal Reform Party (what a monumental waste of time and energy that proved to be) has now slipped below Alberta’s political horizon after failing to achieve anything more than forming the Official Opposition for a few brief years.
So much for the Manning model. So much for Simpson’s “new political forces.”
A much better idea, if history is to be accepted as our best instructor on this subject, is to take an existing party and remake it. That’s what Peter Lougheed did. Or at least, that is what Lougheed is often credited with accomplishing.
In 1965, Lougheed inherited a failed party and a “toxic” brand. Two years later, his Progressive Conservatives formed the Official Opposition. Four years after that, they formed the government.
How did Lougheed do it? He didn’t. At least, not really.
Albertans did it. Specifically, voters in Edmonton and Calgary who had been voting for Social Credit candidates for decades, brought about the government’s sudden collapse.
In 1971, they decided that the Socreds were too steady, boring and old-fashioned. They looked at the dim lights and rural faces perched on the cabinet benches and decided that enough was enough.
After 36 years of one-party rule, the time had come to make a change.
So they switched to a different party — not a new party, but an established party.
It was an enormously practical decision. Not a minute was wasted trying the reinvent the wheel.
Change came in an instant. Without warning, Albertans put a new government formed from an old party on track toward a growth-and-change agenda valued by a new generation of urban voters.
And in doing so, they permanently changed the political landscape.